With respect to women
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - May 13, 2019 - 12:00am

In a substantial part of this writer’s just-concluded broadcasting workshop, we discussed the state and future of women’s sports in the country and throughout Asia. The iceberg that was the status of women’s has started moving in the right direction. But equality is still arm’s length away, and continues to face resistance from predominantly male bureaucracy of most sports federations. The old school is shrinking, but is still formidable.

In a talk given by the Philippine Olympic Committee‘s Karen Tanchanco-Caballero, she elaborated on the slowly improving state of the rights of female athletes. Caballero heads Women in Sports committees for the SEA Games Federation and other international sports groups, and has been a powerful advocate for women’s rights in sports locally and internationally. She stated that there is still a long way to go to break out of the confines set by generations of male sports leaders on women athletes. It is only now that these undesirable molds are being broken.

“Let’s start with the most basic, the terminologies involved,” explains Caballero, who is on the board of the world sepak takraw federation. “Why are male athletes ‘men’ and female athletes ‘girls’ or ‘ladies’? If they are gentlemen, women are ladies. For men, simply ladies.”

The next bothersome truth is that the first thing people look at and talk about is how the women athletes look. A male athlete is discussed based on his preparedness and performance. For a female athlete, the scuttlebutt is that almost always - in a Philippine setting - a woman’s look is discussed. In pictorials, female athletes are glammed up, made up, dressed up. That is, when they aren’t made to wear next to nothing. That’s another norm that is unnecessary, and unfair. And it begs the question why is it that way?

“I’ve constantly been debating with male officials regarding making female athletes’ uniforms skimpier and more fitting,” she shakes her head. “I’m trying to make them more comfortable for the athletes, and to avoid awkward situations, particularly in our sport, which involves acrobatic moves.”

This is even more crucial in the many Muslim countries in Asia. The rules of modesty prevail. And in recent years, the rules have changed to address the needs of the faith of the athlete. Very little skin - if any - is seen. The hijab has been modified slightly to allow modesty and still have room for movement and effort. This is a major move in parity of rights and consideration of the mores of participating athletes, whereas in past eras, it was taken for granted that the female athlete would not participate. This allows millions more little girls to dream of becoming world-class athletes, because they have more models whom they can closely identify with. It is a great sigh of relief for past generations.

Culturally, in many countries, women athletes carry the burden of needing to be visually appealing in order to be noticed. Even when they exceed expectations and shatter records, there seems to be a sentiment that they are lesser than their male counterparts. Locally, incredible talent like the University of Santo Tomas women track athletes and the National University women’s basketball team have hardly cracked the sports pages, though each of them has won five UAAP championships in a row. This oversight is a glaring example of how, at a subconscious level, we don’t find women’s athletes as impressive, and that, at the most fundamental level, has to change if we want to call ourselves progressive.

Historically, women were once forbidden from participating in the Olympic Games, in the mistaken belief that they could not handle it. And when they did succeed, doubts were cast on their womanhood, as in the case of Mona Sulaiman. When she became a dominant force in athletics, she was being coerced to take a gender test to prove that she was a woman. She refused to be subjected to such an indignity, and elected to resign.

At the end of the day, we want other people to change their opinion on women’s sports, and to empower female athletes, instead. But it has to start with us.

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